Managing the Semi-Virtual Biotech Firm: IT to the Rescue
Updated: May 27
Many scientific and technological innovations over the past decade have enabled a new type of biotech startup to operate successfully – the “semi-virtual”, highly-distributed biotech. These new methods -- both scientific and technological -- enable a small firm with only a handful of employees to perform the complex tasks of drug discovery and preclinical development. In the early days of biotech, firms like Genzyme, Biogen and Millennium had to build large, in-house teams to invent (or adapt from academia) many of the laboratory procedures that are now routinely outsourced or completed by kits. Today, the scrappy science startup can take advantage of all previous innovation to make rapid progress at a relatively low cost.
In future posts, we will explore some of these exciting innovations. Today, however, I will
focus on another set of innovations that can be equally important in empowering startups, from the leaner funded teams to large, well-financed firms, to operate efficiently with little framework or overhead. Technology has evolved to the point where a small firm can rapidly employ a broad and powerful range of tools and online services to implement a highly professional infrastructure at a very low cost.
These tools – hosted IT services that do not require expensive servers or costly IT support –
enable a team to work remotely across continents and time zones. Many are designed to
support both full-time staff as well as part-time consultants and outside vendor/CRO partners.
The net result of these tools is that the management of a semi-virtual biotech can oversee a
dispersed set of employees, consultants, partners, and advisors and create a productive and
In this post I will focus on the specialized set of tools we have used at Siamab – in most cases, there are multiple options available for every category, so feel free both to experiment with the specific tools we used while remaining open to other alternatives. If you are aware of equivalent tools and resources I didn’t mention, please let me know – email@example.com.
It’s now been over a decade since solid web-based financial management tools became
available. We contract with an outsourced bookkeeping/financial management firm
reporting, and annual tax preparation. Bills are paid through Bill.com and we use
and option management.
We outsource our payroll and benefits to Trinet, (a future post will discuss this in greater detail) but it’s worth mentioning here that one benefit of the Trinet service is an employee HR portal that enables self-service for all kinds of payroll and HR issues and questions. We also use BeeBole, a time-tracking tool to track employee time worked on specific collaborations and grants.
Scientific Program Management
Program management (PM) is a critical function in drug development. With multiple
projects operating in parallel, and many complex tasks and subtasks overseen by both
internal staff and external collaborators, partners, and consultants, it can become
overwhelming to keep track of all the moving parts.
We use Asana as the core project management, task, and to-do system which enables us to assign projects and tasks to both internal and external collaborators. Senior management can get a comprehensive view of the status of the wide range of ongoing activities and, since the system is hosted online, it can be an excellent tool used to conduct PM meetings – real-time updates are immediately reflected for all users, so we’ll often bring up the Asana screen in a company meeting, with one team member “driving” updates, and talk through all key tasks at issue. Meeting minutes can, at times, be substituted by these updates, and project assignments, updates, changed deadlines can all be viewed in real time.
In addition to Asana, we use Smartsheet (think Excel with Gannt charts) and
Airtable (Excel meets a database) for tracking and displaying specific projects.
Essential in a scientific environment are lab notebooks, the contents of which can be
essential in IP filings and prosecution as well as handover of tasks to new employees and
even diligence at times. We use an electronic lab notebook – Biovia – which allowed for
complex data to be added to entries, managerial approval, and PDF export.
Collaboration & Diligence
In today’s “post-server” world, we find that by using Dropbox carefully and diligently we
get all the benefits of a secure, encrypted document store with precise user controls.
Regularly rolling out new features and benefits for corporate customers, Dropbox has
become a core tool to help manage a very large set of critical data files, CRO reports,
experimental data, and all of the related documents associated with developing a drug.
Dropbox offers excellent data security and effectively creates a backup for us with the
corporate level offering – including deletion protection – so we can be confident these
critical files are safe and secure.
For diligence requests by potential partners and investors, we use Dropbox for the
simpler/shorter file lists and Box.com for the more robust and complex diligence
requirements. Box offers company and user level security and tracking – enabling
reporting at the file level so we can see every user’s viewing/opening of any diligence
file. We can restrict access to viewing only (not downloading) at a very granular level.
My goals are simple –
1) Wherever I am, if I have my laptop and a good internet connection, I
want to be able to access all corporate information and be 100% on top of everything that is
going on with the Siamab team, our collaborators and consultants, and all the data we are generating.
2) I want to be able to empower team members – whether full, part-time, or
outside CROs and collaborators – to be able to access and share all needed information easily and in a highly organized fashion.
Today’s technology tools enable these goals at a modest cost and with a fairly easy learning curve. Thank you Silicon Valley!